Sing a (Not So) Simple Song

A roundtable with five Twin Cities songwriters

           The Yngwie Malmsteens of the world were probably ripping their hair out: A recent issue of Guitar magazine, with Oasis on the cover, screamed the panicked headline: "Like it or not, SONGWRITING is now just as important as guitar playing--maybe more." The horror! You mean, musicians are now expected to put out substance over style? So be it.

           This seems especially relevant to the Minnesota scene, where songwriting often takes the front seat to musicianship. With that in mind, we rounded up five local musicians, all working at some level of underground prominence, to discuss what the art of songwriting is all about. Our panel members are all up for Minnesota Music Awards (MMAs) Thursday night at First Avenue, and most have made some form of full-length recording debut in the last year. Each of them has a distinct approach to his or her craft, and some had never been in the same room together. Here's the rundown:

           Barbara Cohen, 32, leads the eclectic modern-folk combo Little Lizard. Prior to the release last year of the full-length Black Lake, she won the 1994 MMA for Best Female Songwriter. Presently she's also collaborating in Brother Sun Sister Moon, a trip-hop project with Information Society's Paul Robb, to be unveiled in the fall.

           Stuart Davis, 25, has spent years touring, recording, and self-releasing albums of his songs. His brand new disc, Nomen Est Numen (Triad), is the first to be issued by a label other than his own. Flaunting a vocabulary to rival Shakespeare (well, that's pushing it), the Lakeville native seeks to make pop music safe for the English language.

           Dylan Hicks, 25, a.k.a. Kid Dyllin' Hicks, a.k.a. the Governor of Fun, a.k.a. the Renaissance Man, recently released his debut, Won. A part-time record store clerk, a full-time record buff and the best dancer in Minneapolis, Hicks is a consummate ideas man with a tireless sense of humor. (He once bartered personalized songs for five to 10 dollars each in the City Pages classifieds.) He also manages dylan davis, a "new age/rock/nature sounds" artist.

           Wendy Lewis, 39, a.k.a. Rhea Valentine, which is also the name of her band. Rhea first emerged in the late '80s, but then reappeared in 1994 as a radically different rock band that plays improvisationally off of Lewis's stunning vocal leads, both live and on their debut, Shrug. Lewis and Cohen happen to be best friends, and Lewis and Hicks share a guitarist in the multifaceted Terry Eason.

           Matt Olson, 26, writes all the songs for not one but two bands: Balloon Guy, whose low-profile major-label debut, The West Coast Shakes, is up for the MMA's Best Overall Rock Recording award; and Smattering, his indie supergroup which debuted last summer with Sissy Bar. The hyperproductive Olson belongs to a new school of stream-of-consciousness lyricism.

--Simon Peter Groebner

           City Pages: Would you agree that there's no specific "Minneapolis sound"?

           Matt: I would. Probably there never was. There's certain things that get attention. Outside of this reality it could seem that it's the Minneapolis sound.

           Stuart: It's a perceived identity.

           Matt: I always get asked about the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. "Why don't you sound like them?" When I get interviewed by people in other cities they think that that is the Minnesota sound.

           Dylan: We haven't been in one town yet where people haven't talked about the Replacements.

           Matt: They can't understand why we don't sound like that. They assume that most bands here do. That's obviously not true.

           Dylan: There are tastemakers in Minneapolis and there is a music community in Minneapolis that accepts certain things and rejects others. As a songwriter/performer, whether I admit it or not, I'm going in thinking of my audience. The first people I'm thinking of are my close friends. I'm always thinking of somebody when I write the songs. Hopefully not too early in the process but I'm thinking, who's going to hear this and how are they going to react to it? A factor in that is the general Minneapolis community. I'm not exactly sure how to pinpoint the characteristics there are in that community, but I think it exists and there are pockets of scenes.

           I haven't done a lot of traveling, but I've noticed that things I take for granted as acceptable or popular aren't always that way in other cities. Like Alex Chilton and Big Star. They're really big here. Because of the Replacements song, he comes to town a lot. It just became a thing here. [Then there are] the bands that City Pages and critics celebrate. The whole Wilco/Son Volt thing is huge in other parts of the country, but not to the extent it is here.

           Wendy: I think that's probably even just the geography and the weather trailing through all of us, but you can't put your finger on it.

           Matt: That's pretty abstract, the effects on people's personality.

           Wendy: Yeah. I stay sequestered in my basement.

           Matt: So do I! I hardly ever go see bands, unless I'm interested in something I heard.

           CP: How to you get inspired to write a song? Is there a regimen or pattern to the way you work? Some people I know just get up in the morning and write five hours a day; others just hang around and space out until they feel they've got an idea that's going to explode, then they sit down and work for 12 hours.

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